At the 2005 Cannes Festival, brothers Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne received the Palme d'Or for l'Enfant, their second in six years (the first for Rosetta, in 1999).
The film opens with eighteen-year-old Sonia (Deborah Fran'ois), freshly released from the maternity hospital and carrying her brand-new baby, knocking at the door of her own apartment. She is refused admission. Taking advantage of her brief hospitalization, her boyfriend, Bruno (Jeremie Renier), rented the apartment for the week to some strangers. This incident sets the tone for the rest of the film. Sonia returns to the street where she encounters a friend with a motor scooter who takes her and the infant to meet twenty-one-year-old Bruno, who is the baby's father. Bruno casually looks at his son, "Jimmy," but he doesn't pay too much attention to him, as he is in the process of making one of his "deals." Bruno lives at the fringe of society, surviving off petty theft, trafficking in stolen properties with a gang of young teens who look up to him, and cadging Euros from Sonia's Government-issued family allowance. His latest "deal" having apparently succeeded, he goes and buys a beautiful baby stroller.
Later, while Sonia stands in line at the welfare office, Bruno takes the baby for a stroll in the carriage. While walking, he decides to sell Jimmy to a baby adoption trafficker, and then swiftly carries out his misbegotten plan. When he reconnects with Sonia and shows her the money, she reacts violently, and demands Jimmy's return. Bruno says simply, "We'll make another one." Sonia is overcome by shock, and faints. Bruno carries her to the hospital, and then worried that her raving about "the baby" is going to get him in trouble, embarks on a course to retrieve his son. Bruno arranges for the return of the trafficker's money, recovers Jimmy, and takes him back to Sonia at the hospital. However, the trafficker, accompanied by his goonish bodyguard, demands an "indemnity" from Bruno equal to double the payment for the botched transaction. To make sure that Bruno understands the seriousness of this indemnity, the trafficker's bodyguard beats Bruno, and in the process takes the few Euros that Bruno had in his pockets, which the trafficker says will be deducted from the total sum Bruno owes him. The indemnity is so large, Bruno knows that he will never be able to repay. Nevertheless, he valiantly tries, with the help of Steve (Jeremie Segard), a member of Bruno's gang, and one thing leading to another, he eventually ends up in jail.
L'Enfant was filmed in the town of Seraing, a dreary industrial suburb of Liege, located on the Meuse River. The film's style is that of a documentary, using a hand-held camera which is always on the move, pursuing Bruno and Sonia. So many close ups and extreme close ups force the viewer into extreme intimacy with the characters, and produce a somewhat claustrophobic atmosphere from which no escape is possible. The film's austerity is amplified by the fact that there is no music in the whole film, only urban background noises.
As always, the Dardennes rely on the ability of their actors to be the actual characters before playing their parts. The never provide psychological descriptions of their protagonists, but leave it to the viewers to discover them as they develop on the screen. Jeremie Renier is the lead, as Bruno. Renier was discovered by the Dardenne brothers as a teenager, when they featured him in the leading role of La Promesse (1996). In L'Enfant, Renier is spontaneous and natural, simply superb in his role of the amoral Bruno. Deborah Fran'ois, in her debut role as Sonia, is already a compelling actress. Twenty-three babies were used in the role of Jimmy, not due to the part's challenge, but because of the necessity for multiple retakes -- babies require feeding and changing, and they can get cranky fast. A doll was used as a stand-in during only one scene at the beginning of the film, where Jimmy is carried by Sonia on the back of a motor scooter, because of the potential danger that may have been posed to a real infant. The doll's name was "Jimmy Crash."
Bruno, although physically adult, behaves like a child. He is not immoral as much as he is amoral, like a young animal, living day-to-day, oblivious to tomorrow. When he has money, he spends it on the spur of the moment: he buys a pricey baby carriage, expensive clothes, or he leases a fancy convertible to take his girlfriend and infant son on a joyride. Bruno seems to understand money in its purest form, as currency: the longer it stays in one place, the less valuable it is.
On the other hand, Bruno is generous, and above all, honest. When he distributes the proceeds of his "deals" to his young gang members, he is scrupulously honest in letting them know the precise amount of each transaction. And he does not abandon Steve in the hands of the police, but voluntarily goes to the police station, surrenders the stolen cash and takes full responsibility for the holdup. Sonia does not appear to have a strong personality, until she is challenged by the loss of her baby. Right in the beginning, after Bruno sells Jimmy to the trafficker, we see how motherhood transforms Sonia. For Bruno, it will take longer -- actually until the end of the film, following a series of terrible events. Even then, he will not have an epiphany, but at least something in him will change.
"L'enfant" (the child) is almost faceless, just a lumpy blue bundle with two tiny, protruding hands. He does have a name, "Jimmy," but he does not know it yet, as nobody speaks to him or addresses him during his first few days as a human being. Jimmy's start in life does not show much promise. He will have the distinction of having driven back from the hospital on a motor scooter, without a helmet, on a drizzling day. He will carry forever the feeling of abandonment, and a hatred for flowered wallpaper, remembering the room where his father sold him for a wad of Euros. Will he ever get beyond his inauspicious beginnings? The film's cathartic ending hints at this possibility. The Dardennes may be resigned regarding Bruno's and Sonia's future, or lack thereof, but one feels that they carry their hope for a new beginning in Jimmy.
Bruno and Sonia live in a permanent "here and now." They are like two cubs, cavorting, rough-housing, laughing, full of life and full of love for each other. In spite of their immaturity, there is no question that Bruno and Sonia love each other, and in the end, their love overcomes their adversity, bringing a faint glimmer of hope: for the first time in the film, and in their life. They transcend the gloomy present in their reconciliation, which could also be a manifestation of their survival instincts.
Bruno and Sonia live in a society which ignores and destroys its children, turning them into fringe elements, petty thieves, and misfits, a society where crime leads to more crime, more crime to violence, and so on, ending finally with imprisonment. Is there a solution? The Dardennes seem to answer "yes," and propose love and nurturing as the solution.
The Dardenne brothers never fall into the melodramatic or whining sentimentalism. Their reality, sordid though it is, speaks for itself. They are neither judges nor moralizers. They show us a crumbling society which has lost its bearings, and whose moral code has collapsed under the weight of repeated social and economic crises. Bruno and Sonia evolve in their everyday devoid of both perspective and future.
To conclude, a small production anecdote. In filming the scene when Bruno and Steve are on the run and find themselves up to their necks in the Meuse River, Jeremie Renier got into trouble. The cold water (which was 42 degrees Fahrenheit) was polluted by industrial oil from a nearby coal processing plant, and Renier twice ingested some of it. This landed him in the local hospital for a stomach pumping that evening.
The strength of Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne's film is to have made Bruno and Sonia, both such society outsiders, simply as two human beings, not the dregs of society nor poor wretches to be pitied: a remarkable achievement worth four stars.